emusiclogoAnd: are eMusic planning on opening an Australian sister site?

eMusic is an online music site where you can access music in mp3 form (sans DRM) by subscribing to their service via a number of monthly plans. Pay X dollars per month and get X downloads: that sort of thing.

According to most accounts they are the second-largest music download site after Apple’s iTunes.

They are currently at the pointy end of a dispute with many of their users about recent hikes in the price of their subscription plans, though, as you’ll see, the argument isn’t necessarily about money.

Now, just so you know, I’ve been a site member since about 2004 and have found them to be a really excellent company. I did quit once, though they offered “me” (obviously, this is a marketing practice they use, so it wasn’t directed at “me” personally) an incentive to rejoin which I was more than happy to accept. And although my music account is currently on a three-month hiatus (a useful option they offer), I am a standing member of their audiobook club, another service that I really like.  In fact, I just downloaded a new book (by David Sedaris) this Sunday past.

A number of things have made eMusic attractive.  First, they have never employed DRM copyright controls, an obvious plus. Second, they allow you to keep your downloads even if you quit (something, for instance, Napster, doesn’t allow).   Third–and this is probably the key to their success–is that their catalog has concentrated on independent music labels, including some genuinely obscure stuff, the sort of thing you are unlikely to find easily accessible elsewhere online, or in shops for that matter.

They have rightly played up this latter aspect of their business and have backed it up with some genuinely good and useful marketing in the form of reviews and information about the various bands they offer. What’s more, if, for instance, you are a newcomer to alt.country/Americana music (or any other genre for that matter), eMusic provides nice encapsulated histories of the genres, along with recommendations along the lines of “10 must-have alt.country albums.”  For nutcase music fans (like me) who are always looking for something new and/or outside the mainstream, the site can be a veritable goldmine.

There are other things.  Some of their staff members, for instance, run a pretty decent blog called 17dots which they describe in these terms:

17 dots is the work of several employees at eMusic, a digital music service. It is by no means an official endeavor, and its opinions do not reflect those of eMusic. Rather, its opinions reflect on the ignorance of its own writers. If you would like to contact 17 dots or any of its contributors, click here to drop us a line. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Yes, all of this is marketing, but as I say, it is a good and useful marketing.

There’s two things that all companies should realise about a clientele that is deeply into their product/subject: first, they are sponges for information and the more you can give them, the more they will like you; second, they have excellent bullshit detectors.  Try and bluff and they will see through it in an instant.  Get these things right, though, and you will build a faithful consumer base.

And that was pretty much what eMusic had achieved.

Their approach has won them a dedicated band of subscribers. I mean, I doubt anyone sees them as other than business, but it is probably true to say that their members have appreciated the approach they have taken. Corporate, yes, but at least a corporation with enough sense to realise that the nature of their business is one that connects with a bunch of music aficionados who genuinely love their music. As my mate Amanda has written:

I said to someone on Twitter the other day [that] eMusic was my favourite non-human thing in the world, which is not hyperbole. I visit it more often than any other website, I hunt obsessively from link to link to link, sample to sample and I have not only discovered countless new artists but numerous entire genres, which now make up a large part of my listening habits.

Any company would give their CEO’s left ear for a customer endorsement like that. And she was hardly the only one. Certainly I sang their praises whenever I was asked about them and I know others who have been equally pleased. Which is why their current problems are totally tragic in a self-inflicted sort of way.  It’s like they have forgotten what has made them successful.

So what are these problems of which you speak?

The current issues arose when eMusic announced that they would soon be able to offer part of the Sony back catalogue to their subsribers.  Along with that information, they also announced that their pricing structure would be changing, which basically meant the unit price subscribers were being charged for downloads would increase, in some cases quite considerably.  What followed looks like a classic case of an otherwise savvy company misjudging their audience.

Part Two to follow…

In which I speak to Cathy Nevins from eMusic, as well as some of the company’s biggest critics…

Also to come, I look at the question of how Australian customers are being treated…